In this month of November I have been reading and reflecting on the lives of some of my Sister of Charity elders. So much of the life they lived as religious women is foreign to me. From externals like the black wool habit and starched veil affectionately dubbed ” the covered wagon” to the spiritual disciplines that structured each day, I can’t imagine how they managed to do the diverse ministries that were required of them. And somehow I think that my life these thirty-plus years as a Sister of Charity would be equally unintelligible to them. The charism of Charity that came to us through the vision of St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise de Marillac and St. Elizabeth Seton is the same, but in every age the gift is packaged for the needs of the times.
Sister Rose Anthony Olberding (1889-1947) is one Sister of Charity whose story has fascinated me. Her younger half-sister, Sister Rose Marion (1906-2000) wrote the details of her story at the direction of the Mother General and it remained in the congregational archives until the family published it in 2010. Last month a copy of the book arrived at our house, a gift from the Sisters’ grandnephew Jim who visited us to launch the Water with Blessings project. His wife Debbie directs our Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation office. “Of Grace and Goodness” allowed me to enter into the life of an extraordinary Sister in the first half of the 20th century.
Sister Rose Anthony was the first SC to earn a PhD. A Sister was needed with the credentials to head the English department at our college and so she was sent to study at Marquette University. The journey of Sister Rose Anthony in ministry from high school teacher to college professor, from Motherhouse landscape artist and keeper of the beehives to director of our first retreat house, is inspiring for its portrayal of deep availability to the will of God. Frequent changes of ministry were the norm rather than the exception for women religious of the day. Rarely if ever was there consultation or discussion about the moves.
What especially intrigues me is how Sister Rose Anthony responded to these requests to serve with profound humility and as an expression of her vow of obedience. She was deeply available to God’s call. But her sister also recorded the pain of isolation she felt was due to the jealousy of others at her educational opportunities. In those days being singled out for special treatment was often accompanied by some other duty to keep one from the sin of pride. Hence the assignment as chief gardener while she was also the head of the English Department! In hearing the stories of many older Sisters, there often seemed to be no rhyme or reason for decisions of the Council in ministry assignments, but how many good works were accomplished by women who felt inept and unqualified? God supplied what was lacking.
Why was Sister Rose Anthony sent to initiate a retreat ministry in Colorado Springs shortly after she had been diagnosed with advanced cancer? Mother Mary Zoe saw her coming out of the chapel and “knew she had a zeal for souls” so she called her in and asked her to take the assignment. She stopped at the Cenacle Sisters retreat in Chicago on the way to Colorado to find out what was involved in such a ministry. The first retreat was scheduled for two weeks after her arrival- but first she had to transform a private mansion into a retreat house. At least she had quite a setting to work with…
How did Sister Rose Anthony manage this ministry transition in the midst of such an illness? What spiritual practices under-girded her life? The Mass was in Latin and community prayers were strictly prescribed, mostly devotionals such as the rosary and novenas. A small black book contained all the daily prayers a Sister of Charity was expected to “get”. Sisters did not have a personal bible and were not encouraged-or allowed-to pray with Scripture. Priests served as spiritual directors and determined the path that a Sister’s prayer life would take. For Sister Rose Anthony, her director encouraged her to let go of scrupulous penitential practices and to follow the “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux.
But in the last years of her life Sister Rose Anthony had her own special guide. She described extraordinary spiritual experiences to her younger sister and to her priest-director. “Our Lady comes to me,” she said. On days when she struggled with great physical pain, she received a deep consolation in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the small fifth floor bedroom under the eaves of the Motherhouse that was assigned to her. We will never know for sure whether these apparitions were “real”, but the evidence of Sister Rose Anthony’s life gives credence to the story as it was faithfully recorded by Sister Rose Marion at the request of Mother Mary Omer.
This is just one story of one Sister who died on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1947 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. How many more stories could be told of the women who are buried in the Motherhouse cemetery or in other little plots around the world?
My own story connects with theirs, though I feel that I have had so many more opportunities to choose from and to discern. I, too, am bound to a deep availability to the Spirit of God and challenged to humility, simplicity and charity according to the Constitutions of our congregation. From the first day I entered the community I have been encouraged to immerse myself in Scripture. I have had spiritual direction from Sisters of Charity and others trained for that special ministry. I have been companioned by many dear and wise Sister-friends who have helped me understand God’s call, to recognize God’s voice and to develop my gifts.
And when I was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, not only did I receive the best medical care available but I had a sustained “sabbatical” for the healing process. I was given the time and the encouragement to listen deeply for the next call of God.
I think that my life as a Sister of Charity would probably mystify Sister Rose Anthony, except for the belief that she sees it now from the vantage-point of the communion of saints. I trust that she has been watching with great interest these many years, cheering me on and giving me inspiration to live the life God calls me to live. We do the best we can, in every age, with the divine assistance of our God and the ones who rest now in peace.